SPREY Log #18 – Anatomy of a Failure

My friends! It’s rare that something happens, that is so big, that it changes the course of your life or at least strongly affects your future decionmaking. Today I’m sharing with you, how a humble anatomy study taught me who I am and how I work and gave me a clearer perspective on what to do with my webcomic. Especially ambitious and impatient artists and storytellers, listen up, this one is for you. Hopefully sharing this experience saves you some time on your own journey or makes you want to pick it up again.

Failing at an anatomy study…

Yesterday, after a long time of abstinence, I sat down to do a study of the skeleton and muscles of the upper body and then do a painted study of the reference on top. I haven’t done such a study ever before. I was aware you can dissect a reference image like that, but I haven’t ever done it. I managed to study easier things around that but never go in that deep. And I’m not experienced at painting at all. I always liked anatomy though. It’s that good, quiet friend who’s always looking out for you, but never saying anything when you neglect them. So with a good dose of confidence and an ‘if it gets tough I’ll just keep fighting’ mindset I started translating my reference image into skeleton. So far so good, with the help of a lot of references I understood things enough to make it work. I congratulated myself that I didn’t try to do a full body and only stayed with this scope. But I had a sophisticated hand pose in stock for myself, I don’t want to study anything, I want to study the best and most aesthetic things. My luck ended with the muscle layer though. If you have several layers of them, don’t have rock solid knowledge of their functions, looks and origins and the anatomy references do not differentiate what is an “important” muscle and what is not …this gets overwhelming. I somehow made it through the chest and rectus abdominus, I surely left a whole group of muscles out on the side, but I couldn’t imagine them in 3D and on my model. But with the arms, it absolutely ended for me. Too much information, too confusing, muscles look absolutely different bent and from an angle than on the flat diagrams of the anatomy book. And not only that, the overload was so real I stopped drawing for the day and just went away to do some chores. I wasn’t in pain or anything, I just was exhausted mentally and did something else for the rest of the evening. Later I sat down to sort my thoughts through writing. Then it struck me that I know this feeling of overwhelm and this specific pattern of struggling.

…and finding the experience mirrored in the SPREY experience

Wasn’t SPREY the same experience on a larger scale?
I haven’t done a comic of this kind ever before, actually, there are so so many firsts in there for me, like sci-fi cars and various kinds of combat, even combat on motorcycles. When I started out I didn’t even have the capacity to draw a whole page with several panels. Also something like a character turnaround was three chapters away. And of course, I couldn’t paint. I couldn’t and can’t even write long scripts. I was lacking more on the color and light front than today, making any rendering a game of luck. From today’s perspective, my style was never the problem, my lack of knowledge and inexperience was.
I always liked the subject matters I wanted to tackle in SPREY though. Who doesn’t like cool action scenes? Which synthwave fan wouldn’t enjoy an 80ies inspired, retrofuturistic and extremely eyepleasing slasher romance?
So with a good dose of I need to draw this or my life makes no sense and an “if it gets tough I’ll just keep fighting” mindset I started making SPREY, one panel a day. That worked for two chapters. And with a ton of sweat, research and effort I made it through two chapters. I congratulated myself that SPREY is not a twelve volume tale, but only a one-shot. But of course, SPREY is an extremely ambitious project with new and ever more complex things waiting around the corner for me to draw. I don’t want to spend my time with creating anything, I want to create the things that are important to me and that look most aesthetic pleasing and stunning to me. My luck ended with the third chapter though, when things became more real and panels became pages. I got good enough to tackle more difficult environments, I started to design and draw vehicles, perspective and light got more complex. But I still had no clue about so many things, I was constantly overwhelmed. Other than with the anatomy study I didn’t have one day where I just exhausted myself, it happened a lot of times. I had an art block and life crisis after every chapter, later in chapter three I wanted to escape my torment after quite some of the complex pages. But I kept fighting until even I ran out of energy and sent SPREY into hiatus. Then I wasn’t in pain at all, I could just go about my day and do anything else. And then indeed I started looking for what was wrong. First I looked into books like Invisible Ink to find out about invisible armatures behind things, then my search for answers lead me far away from SPREY…and it lead me here, where the circle closes.

Conclusions

What I learn from it, I’m a stubborn and hard worker and I must have an incredible pain tolerance. This can absolutely play out against me when I keep going too deep into something. On the other hand I can cultivate this like a superpower when catching up again. And it did pay off to keep fighting, I did improve over time and gained some experience with SPREY, that no one can take away from me again. But a very real crisis after every chapter or now in the middle of a chapter? That is just not a way to live. And it is unnecessary. Why? I think I can deduce what to do with SPREY from the smaller scale anatomy study. The failed anatomy study didn’t worry me at all. If it doesn’t work today, you come back tomorrow, do a series of smaller anatomy studies to build up the knowledge and competence to tackle the more complex one. Don’t get yourself into a loop where you are just training, just preparing all the time but never advancing with the stuff you actually want to do. And that’s it. Also, what if I choose to make a smaller anatomy study but it’s still too big for me? Well, I’ll know when I’ll fail. Then I’ll make the scope even smaller and work my way up from there. There is no ambiguity or guesswork. So that would mean for SPREY – whatever I wanted to do right now will not work like this and I can’t save it. For now. I can now break it down and tell a smaller slice of the story or even the backstory, or whatnot. Really a small story unit. Or I can do a different story. And I will know whether it is still too much for me when it doesn’t work out. So there is a potential for a cascade of failing until I get to the point where I’m really at and can work up from there as efficiently and without crisis as possible, cleaning up all the mess I caused on the way there. I don’t know about you, but that sounds great to me. And SPREY is absolutely getting done, but apparently that takes a bit longer than I anticipated. But I’m as eager to get there as always.

Turning Pro

Also- this can be applied to many other things too. Want to make a portfolio but are paralyzed on the spot? How about starting with something smaller than a whole portfolio. Want to design the coolest character of all time but having trouble drawing clothes or figures in perspective at all? Well guess what you will do first before tackling that big character design. Enjoy your cascade of failing, the rise out of it makes it even sweeter. And actually, this realization ends the original ark of this blog. I am a pro now because I have realized how to bring together my ambitions and my actual limitations. I have to respect my limitations while trying to push them. This is what I was looking for. I have turned pro in my mindset, now my skills have to follow.

SPREY Log #05 – Being the wrong person

The development of the past days made me once again reflect on my webcomic project Street Prey (SPREY). I regularly had urges to give it up, made a longer break due to a mix of burn-out and intense self-doubt in the beginning of this year, but at the same time before and after I put out a surprising amount of panels and pages for these circumstances.

And now I actually have arrived at a point where I have to say and teach something. And no, it’s not about panel composition or something purely technical. I want to talk about the mindset change I am experiencing working on a monstrous project like this. If you want to write a novel, make a really long form webcomic, an artbook or anything else of that sort yourself, maybe this can help you, too.

My creation frustration cycle

Usually it goes like this: I make an honest attempt at doing my best work with my comic, let it run for a couple of weeks where I’m constantly underwhelmed with my output both in quantity and quantity but don’t seem to be able to overcome whatever holds me back. Most of the time I cannot even name or understand what it is. Then I hit a point where everything seems pointless. Analyzing my own and my creation’s various flaws I come to the conclusion that I’m the wrong person to do this comic or a comic like this. Thinking things to their logical conclusion I then decide that I should be sensible and either do something else entirely and never do a comic again, or I should first create and finish a bunch of little things, then be ready for a bigger one later. And then I sleep a night over it, do not agree with it and start a new cycle in which I will again do my best with SPREY.

There is a couple interesting questions rising up from this, but for now let’s look at what happened at the end of the most recent cycle.

What went different this time

So I wrote on this blog that I almost sent SPREY into a hiatus again. I experienced what I described in the creation frustration cycle up to the point where I woke up disagreeing with the hiatus and started working on the next page.

So what changed?

First of all, as you are reading this right now, I have realized that I’m in a looping cycle and I’m not shy to talk about it. Various other creators might be experiencing the same or a comparable cycle right now and not have these words for it. What if they don’t know they are in a loop either, so it would be helpful for everyone to speak up about it.

Secondly, I am convinced I have a chance for a different run of the cycle this time. I did not come to the conclusion that I am the wrong person to do SPREY this time. I am still the wrong person in a sense that my skills and stamina are not up to par with where they should be to get this done in a convincing way. But I have a fair chance of getting there. I would say the past cycle began with the stormy beginning of chapter 3 in May and lasted until the page where we hear Rich’s narrator voice for the first time. A lot has happened since May. I keep working on my skills. I was able to accomplish more than I thought I could do in the field of design and illustration both paid and in personal projects. Also quite some efforts were made to improve the writing and designs in SPREY behind the curtains. So there definitely is hope.

And there is a new idea in my head.

Of course I started making SPREY as the wrong person to do so. But within a year of doing SPREY and doing things around and for SPREY I have grown enough that I am less the wrong person for it than one year ago. And I will continue to grow as a creator. What if SPREY is exactly the right project for me to do so? It entices me to do better. It frustrates me, but it never frustrates me enough to give up. I never get tired of it. I literally think about SPREY every day and it does not get boring. I might eventually have to redraw parts of the comic once I have arrived at a final form of it but this is a small sacrifice compared to giving it up and never realizing all the potential and growth I could have had chasing SPREY until the end. I believe SPREY is worth being told, it’s worth being experienced. I’m paying for learning on a premium project like this one by some moments of passionate creator despair, occasional overwhelm and other strong emotions. But I keep going and I’m getting stronger after every cycle that did not hit me out of making SPREY. Also, this time I do not want out anymore.

I have some more thoughts and ideas but I feel I would do them a disservice to squeeze them into this blog post, too, let’s go through them one by one in the next entries.

Thanks for joining me today. If you are sitting over your novel, script, own comic, videogame or other creative project right now and have hit a roadblock in the middle, know you’re not alone and consider not giving into the urge to quit. Quitting is easier than enduring the ongoing frustration and allowing yourself to change and grow. Quitting is not that worthwhile in comparison.

See you next blogpost!

100 Days of SPREY – 62

Time is just pouring through my hands like sand or water, but there is no reason to feel bad about it anymore. I have accepted that this is how things go. They call that transience, the experience of time fleeting and all things changing around you. I felt like I was a stagnating solid block in the middle of that many times, I could not take part, but this is not true. If really everything is passing and changing, so are you.

I have been changing a lot lately. Enough that even I noticed it. Last week I learned the basics of UI design. This does not make me an UI expert, but increasing the knowledge from zero to making a sheet of box designs the client likes and approves of is a huge step. And what I learned about learning was even better and bigger. I want to share with you!

Do you have something that you would kind of need in your skillset, but it’s boring to learn, all the explanations are difficult to understand or hopelessly convoluted or you just don’t get a grip on ressources about it or the time or energy to study them at all?

What makes you think you are best served with huge chunks of your time put into these things? Could you be thinking you want to bridge the gap of being bad at something fast? It is pain, agony, to imagine you are really bad at something and despite best efforts will be bad at it for years. Yeah. But if you build the bridge too fast and not stable enough it will collapse again and you will have hurt yourself, too. All the sacrifices you made to rush it did not bring you the desired results and you have still spent the ressources. So I sat down, I had to learn UI design and deliver a first basic sheet within a week, and the first two days nothing gave. I insisted to learn at a speed at which I could observe myself so I clearly could see what the problem was. Anyone can watch tutorials on UI for an hour. But do you know more about how to tackle the concrete UI tasks you have to solve afterwards? Do you know what to do at all? How to translate it into your own work? Day two I still learned more about what UI is but the fog was strong and heavy as before in my head. In my impatient head this should have been a catastrophy. Two solid days of spending tedious time on something without a result. Outrageous. Indeed, one hour of researching UI made me tired like having spent three hours or so on it. I learned that time spent on activities is not equal. Activities are not consuming energy equally. I accepted that and told myself, fine, then I will have to spend more days where I “just” learn a bit UI and do not expect to rush to design it when the head stays empty. But on the third day my brain gave in and I designed what I was told to design without a problem. I could have terribly fought with myself Monday and Tuesday, spent a lot of energy on being angry with myself or my learning speed. I could have tried to force myself to be more productive without knowing what I was actually doing. Instead for once I just accepted what I found to be and happen in reality and worked with that. No expectations. How could I expect a certain rate of progress from myself in a field I did not even know what to expect and how fast? Think about it, if you are new at something…how do you know you are too slow? You have no experience to back up how fast or slow things should be. That comes with time when you have finished the task several times and have developed a routine with it. Also you are not that other person that did it in half or double your time.

So Monday and Tuesday I did what I could, spend the time on UI my brain would give, then spent the other time and focus on tasks that cost me less and got those done, too. Wednesday it clicked for UI and I was able to do the design task in actually an average time for my design and drawing sessions. It had clicked. My brain had needed time to establish all the connections. I also had to rethink what UI is for me and how I place and value it in the process of videogame creation. Turns out UI is actually more important than the actual game art. What do I mean? The user interface the player sees and interacts with shapes the gaming experience. You have no experience without the user interface, even if it is a minimal one! How do you even start the game? Game art of course is important, too, but art itself is not interactive if you think about it. You could also be watching a movie if it was not for menus, choices, health bars and visible consequences of actions in the world. And from there, from this Wednesday, learning more UI was easier. I had completed the task once so every sheet that follows, every research that follows for a different subtask or design element is easier or faster or both.

And I’m sure this works for other fields, too! I am learning about business in little daily steps. And the upcoming weeks in particular I might invest some time into chipping away at perspective. I don’t accept not being able to use this art fundamental at it’s full force. I want to be at least so okay at it that I do not fail at problem solving. Perspective is important for viewing things, you know. My camera angles and such. And this is where we come back to Street Prey (SPREY).

Everything I’m doing, the whole design course, the contract job that has nothing to do with it but pays and opens possibilities for more paid work in the future …everything is for SPREY and my personal work in general. The better I get, the better I can express myself and deliver best quality to my audience. Apparently you do not always work in straight lines towards that. I’m on a neighboring slope or so right now looking over. One day things will go together. SPREY will either finance itself or I will have enough paid work to finance the time spent on it. I am working hard and doing my best every day. New is that I also accept days that just are not my best. I do not ever regret times I spend relaxing. Having a balance between that and work makes me happier and more productive than trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

I am longing for SPREY though, terribly. The daily draw and upload scheme is unfortunately not possible for me right now, but I will spend this week collecting things and try out the upload it all on Sunday scheme. I will not yet scream it from the rooftops and advertise it everywhere on my social media because this is untested. What if I can’t make it work and have to cease and look for a different approach within 1-2 weeks? It would disappoint readers again if they learn about a weekly scheme and then it doesn’t happen. So let’s test first. This is the privilege of the beginner. Test as much as you want. You have nothing to lose.

See you next blog entry!

Restructuring IV – The Failed Meta Comic

The 100 days of SPREY (Street Prey) have started already, but the restructuring blog series isn‘t over yet. In fact, finishing this series of blog posts on my thoughts and new knowledge from the 100 days challenge is part of phase 1 of the new challenge. Making room for new things also implies not only finishing old things but also properly reflect on them.

Today it‘s time to look at the failures in my comicmaking challenge. Two big things strike me immediately. The first one was tackling a much too ambitious comic, Corvus, first.

Wishes, will and skill just didn‘t align at all and I was so inexperienced that I had no chance to see that. Unfortunately I did not learn much from working on Corvus that way, as I never actually got into drawing the comic. The blog comics and having to deal with SPREY daily took over that part. But indirectly, being able to dissect it in retrospect, I can see where the problems were and in some areas still are. My desired environments for this comic are crazily complex! This is something a more skilled future me can attack.

My second big blunder is creating thumbnails for a full chapter of a metacomic. This thing will never actually make it outside of my blog or see full production. Why is that so? That meta comic chapter is the epitome of a bad idea!

It‘s about exploring a meta level of narration somewhere between fiction and reality, where my creation gets a chance to talk to me. It contains some good ideas that worked well woven into other blog entries of mine. But it would be a terrible, self-indulgent comic to read for anyone else!

A reader that is not me has no chance to understand that chapter if they don‘t know my blog and the characters in it. And even then I haven‘t ever introduced all the characters properly. So that thing was a good learning experience as it helped me to create something, maybe even to process some thoughts myself, but a thing like this has no business being out there published.

When in hindsight all the meta comics, not only the thumbnailed chapter, seem like a bad idea, why did I do it in the first place? I think I honestly didn‘t know it better – if you start out with something, you can literally start anywhere and with anything, you will not know what it‘s worth on any metric like monetary or progress at your craft. Another factor was that I was under a lot of pressure and for most of the time had not find my calling with SPREY yet. I had to deliver things daily and on some days Mikiko and making meta comics out of my thoughts probably saved me from dropping the ball. It is impossible to not make mistakes. I do not regret them. Thumbnailing that chapter was another sign that showed me I could finish something. I felt horrible about it, but I grew from the experience.

And I guess this is a great lesson in itself. You don‘t have to publish everything you make. Sometimes you will need 3-4 attempts to get one piece right (or many more! Open end!). I have this with my daily panels sometimes, and you only get to see the winner who made it online that day. And in other cases that means to abandon a project before a stage where you could think about publishing it. While you have to make mistakes, you don‘t have to make obvious mistakes you see and identify as mistakes like a rising sun on the horizon already. What you put out there to the public must be more than a self-indulgent artistic piece. It can even be self-indulgent if it must, but it must give the audience something more than just that in exchange for their time and attention. My metacomics have their place on my blog, but you will most likely never see a direct representation of them outside of it – and that is okay.

100 Days – 85

Working on the comic is in full swing. I knew I would need more time than usual for my comic work. In fact, I will probably need a couple of hours per panel for the first days, as my digital process for the comic isn‘t settled in yet and even some design questions for the scene are still up in the air. But I will sort things out and it will get smoother again.

You might not actually see it in the final piece, but I really had to work hard for the chapter cover that I uploaded today. From here on my comic takes place in urban environments at night, with few cyberpunk elements to spice things up. Although I did my best to research this setting over the past days, the competence doesn‘t show up on the canvas yet. It has to be persuaded with more effort and studies. I‘m not really good at environments, and that is okay, as everyone has strengths and weaknesses. But I still have to do the best I can, as a comic has to clearly tell you what is happening where in order to work. I need to get at least passable with environments. Ignoring them entirely out of disinterest was a big mistake. They can add so much to a piece, even if the focus is not the environment itself, but a character.

Other than that I‘m slightly worried about my perspective and lighting game. Those are not strong and that is a big problem. They‘re fundamentals after all. Bad perspective = confusion what is where and not being able to draw what you would want to draw at all. Bad lighting = you have no control over the mood of what you are seeing. A BIG problem for a comic! Oh yeah, and objects seem flat, shapes destroyed or misleading or the light just looks wrong when you expect realism, but the mood! Mood! Mood is everything! You do not entertain or win hearts when you cannot tap into the readers‘ emotions at all. I will try to come up with an emergency training program for the next weeks. I want the best comic experience for my readers and I want to present my story the best way I can, so I‘m better getting active and working on fixing that.